The Legislature should craft reforms of the state’s environmental law that apply to all development, rather than offering special treatment to favored projects.
California needs a better approach to environmental issues than special treatment for favored projects. The Legislature should streamline and clarify the state’s overly complex, often ambiguous environmental law. And the reforms should benefit the entire state, not just offer aid to projects with political pull.
The year started with promises by Gov. Jerry Brown and ranking legislators that this year would see revisions to the California Environmental Quality Act. Instead, that effort has devolved into another last-minute push to give favored treatment to a special-interest project. Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, last week unveiled legislation to speed the progress on a basketball arena for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The bill would require a full environmental report for the arena, but would fast-track any legal challenges and limit the courts’ power to halt construction of the project.
The four-decade-old California Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies to study the environmental effects of development plans, and take steps to avoid or repair any damage. But many of the law’s provisions are vague, leading to inconsistency, confusion and conflict. The law’s fuzzy language invites costly, time-consuming litigation and opens the door to nuisance lawsuits. Yet the Legislature largely leaves the job of clarifying the law to the courts, which yields a haphazard, case-by-case approach.
Reforms that would make the law more easily understandable, streamline the review process and curb abuses would benefit everyone. The state needs a law that protects the environment without bogging planning decisions in bureaucratic tangles and legal wrangling. A state worried about high unemployment and a fragile economy should not abide arbitrary roadblocks to economic growth.
But once again the Legislature is more interested in special-interest carve-outs than in serious public policy. Giving favored treatment for a Sacramento basketball arena would follow the dubious precedents legislators set in 2009 and 2011, when they similarly skirted environmental rules to aid professional football stadium proposals.
Changes that only benefit projects with sufficient political clout hardly address the broader concerns about the law. The Legislature should be enacting reforms that apply to all development, not just professional sports proposals.
That task will not be simple, admittedly. The environmental act is a minefield of conflicting interests, where compromise is all too rare and the extremes often drive the debate. The law has to simultaneously protect against harmful, defective development while not obstructing beneficial construction.
But finding the proper balance on the law requires more than giving special help to the well-connected. The state needs a clear, streamlined law that safeguards the environment, speeds planning and curtails abuses. Reforms that achieve that goal would be a substantial legislative achievement — and far better public service than a cynical game of political favoritism.